Trauma, Resilience, and the Church


Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, Vol. 13, edited by Paul Louis Metzger and is reprinted here with permission. 

As a young girl blessed with vigilant parents, I got early signals that somewhere “out there” lurked some mysterious danger. I needed to be alert and take precautions.

As a child, when a kind man in a bookstore gave me candy, my parents taught me never to trust a stranger—even nice ones. To make sure I got the message, they confiscated the candy. When they refused to let me go on an errand in a car with a male relative, I learned that not even everyone I knew and loved was safe. As a young teenager, when I was walking home in the dark after spending the afternoon at a friend’s house, my father tracked me down, picked me up, and drove me home as he warned me that it was dangerous to be out in the night by myself.

As a teenager, I never heard warnings from school officials or youth group leaders about the ever-present risks of sexual abuse or violence against women and girls. I never heard boys warned to respect girls. I never heard anyone say that a real man or true masculinity, understands that “no” means “no.” School officials warned us about STDs. Youth leaders mainly talked about sexual purity. I’ve since learned that already some of my friends and classmates had been sexually assaulted or were currently being abused.

As an adult, I’ve learned that even the best parents can’t be sure their child will skate through life without suffering trauma at the hands of another human being. For years now, through my friendships and teaching, writing, and speaking ministries, women have been (still are) telling me their stories. They’ve put faces and accounts of deep and relentless suffering on the subject of trauma inflicted through the abuse and sexual violations they’ve suffered at the hands of an abusive parent, a twisted neighbor or family “friend,” a controlling boyfriend or husband, or a self-indulgent boss.

One by one the stories came—opening my eyes to a social problem that simmers beneath the surface but often goes ignored. Evidence of trauma surfaces here and there—proving the lasting scars a woman carries after someone violates her person, her body, and her sacred sense of self, sometimes when she was just a child. Apart from a few lone voices and professionals who have devoted their careers to trauma counseling and advocacy for victims of abuse and violence, I was not aware of any concentrated effort to address these issues, not even in the church.

Three factors proved pivotal and compelled me to become an outspoken advocate for women and girls. First were the stories of abuse and assault I was hearing first-hand. Second was my research into the Bible’s empowering message for women and the platform to communicate that message that I must steward. Third was my growing awareness that the problem is far greater and more systemic and global than I ever imagined, thanks in particular to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide—a bracing exposé of the human rights violations of women and girls globally that the authors call the “paramount moral challenge” of the twenty-first century.[1]

These three forces converged in my book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Call for Women—a call to action for Christian women to engage this crisis as God’s image bearers and ezer-warriors for his kingdom.

Recent events have drawn national attention to this issue and intensify the urgency of addressing this crisis.

Breaking Silence

2016 may well be remembered as the year the topic of sexual harassment and assault stormed the headlines and the dam of silence burst. In October of that year, the Washington Post released a 2005 Access Hollywood video that captured presidential candidate Donald Trump boasting lewdly about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it. Over a dozen women stepped forward with allegations that Trump had done exactly that to them. Denials notwithstanding, the issue was firmly on the table, and American women were fiercely determined to keep it there.

On January 21, 2017—the day after Trump’s inauguration—thousands of pink-hatted female protesters flooded American city streets in protest of violence against women and to advocate for women’s rights.

A tsunami of sexual harassment and abuse allegations followed, sequentially toppling a line-up of powerful and once-thought invincible men in media, Hollywood, politics, and technology for exploiting women sexually. Those first few courageous women paved the way for other women to speak their truth. A flurry of #MeToo tweets flooded the Internet, signaling a problem of epidemic proportions. To our shame, a second major wave of #ChurchToo tweets followed. Time magazine acknowledged the global significance of what was happening by naming The Silence Breakers their 2017 “Person of the Year.”

2018 opened with another horrific spate of stories that continued to rock the country. Over 150 courageous young women (former US gymnasts), testified in court of sexual abuse repeatedly inflicted on them by Larry Nassar—the once trusted US Gymnastics team doctor—in the name of “medical procedures.” Attorney Rachael Denhollander[2] was the first former gymnast to make public allegations against the doctor for molesting her.  She was the last of 156 survivors to testify in a sentencing hearing that resulted in a 175-year sentence.

The Power of Trauma

Trauma resulting from abuse of a sexual nature involves irrevocable psycho-spiritual damage that reshapes a person’s story and may well become the dominant controlling force for the duration of her life. The severity of the trauma and the criminal nature of the abuse demands involvement of professional counselors and law enforcement. Allegations that implicate someone within a church or ministry organization make it “essential to have sexual abuse allegations investigated by an independent party that does not have a vested interest in the church.”[3]

The scars are deep and lasting. Recurring nightmares and unexpected triggers keep traumatic memories ever capable of reawakening. The legal notion of a statute of limitations on sexual abuse and violence may give perpetrators a pass on vicious crimes. It is a total fiction for survivors and an outright denial of reality. In some cases, trauma can establish such a debilitating hold on a person that their lives are shattered, driving some to the point of suicide. Trauma’s wounds may be invisible to the naked eye, but the scars are deep and lasting.

There is no silver lining to this hideous cloud. But survivors have demonstrated again and again that trauma can have unexpected outcomes. Today, we have vivid memories of the remarkable moral strength and courage survivors heroically display by standing up, telling their stories, and fighting for justice. That feat is all the more remarkable because they’ve had to fight against overwhelming odds and overcome the trauma of reliving their ordeal in public. Can anyone truly fathom how hard that must have been or what powerful emotions those former gymnasts suppressed to voice their suffering before a battery of media cameras all while facing their abuser?

Some of the most intensely traumatized women display unearthly levels of compassion and tenderness for others. Their antennae—sensitized by their own suffering—are always on red alert. They are quick to spot someone else who is hurting and possess an exquisite ability to come alongside. As Henri Nouwen astutely observed, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that [a person] can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”[4] The byline on the jacket of Nouwen’s book refutes the notion that wounded people in the church are liabilities and speaks instead to the rich potential of survivors. “In our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”

It is also true—and we have biblical support for this—that survivors of trauma of every kind have given us some of the deepest theology we possess. Job stories are borne of trauma. Hagar, Naomi, Hannah, and Esther are a few examples. These sufferers give us permission to wrestle with the deepest questions human beings ever ask. They take us to the edge of human existence, to the perilous precipice of faith. They remind us that even in our darkest most desperate moments when we feel ourselves going over the ledge—God grips us by our ankles (1 Samuel 2:9a).

In the words of Rachael Denhollander:

There was a point in my faith where I had to simply cling to the fact that although I didn’t understand or have the answers, I knew that God was good and that he was love. Whatever else I didn’t understand couldn’t be a contradiction to that.[5] 

Superficial, pie-in-the-sky, prosperity theology is not only misleading, but foreign to these anguished realms of human existence. And sooner or later all of us will need the insights trauma survivors gleaned in the darkness.

The Resilience Journey

From what I’ve gathered from the women who’ve trusted me with their stories, resilience isn’t so much a destination as a journey. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure that this side of eternity anyone burdened by trauma ever fully sheds that load. Instead, they spend their days traveling somewhere between trauma and resilience—putting one foot in front of the other and pressing on with life, each deliberate step rendering a new defeat of trauma’s powers. Some days are no doubt easier than others. But nightmares and unexpected triggers always retain the power to bring trauma back into the present with devastating force.

I’ve also learned there are forces that can give a sufferer fresh strength on this journey. Trauma survivors have discovered the power of speaking their truth. In Gretchen Carlson’s Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back (the book she wrote in the aftermath of her successful take-down of Fox News mogul, Roger Ailes for sexual harassment) she lets Lady Gaga (raped by a man twenty years her senior) do the talking:

I see a lot of people who have secrets that are killing them . . . We don’t want you to keep your pain inside and let it rot like an old apple on your counter you know? It’s like, just get rid of all that trash. Let’s get rid of it together.[6]

They’re also proving that resilience requires community. #MeToo and #ChurchToo tweets are providing at least a virtual community for a lot of women. The solidarity they are finding with one another obviously raises the question of how the ultimate community—the church—will respond.

So far the record is pretty grim. Although there are healthy exceptions, all too often when sexual assault allegations surface within a church or ministry organization, the response is inept at best and complicit and harmful at worst. When major evangelical figures have been caught up in sexual scandal, protecting their reputations, ministries, and organizations often becomes the priority. Cover-ups result. Victims aren’t believed or are pressured to forgive their abusers. This ultimately re-traumatizes those the church should be first in line to protect and defend.

That was Rachael Denhollander’s experience.

“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”[7]

#MeToo Stories in the Bible

This escalating crisis has had a two-way impact on my work. These disturbing current events have shed new light on biblical stories I’ve heard all my life. #MeToo stories have been in our Bible, right in front of us, all along. But we tend to skip over them or sanitize what’s actually happening and ignore the frightening realities presented on the pages of our Bibles. We’ve all done this.

These stories convinced me that the #MeToo crisis has come to us, to me—as Christians. The Bible doesn’t avoid this topic. Jesus doesn’t want his church to avoid it either.

#MeToo stories in the Bible have also pressed me with responsibility and given me biblical warrant to address this crisis and call other Christians to engage.

Consider, for example, the trauma Lot’s daughters suffered at the prospect that their own father was preparing to turn them over to a mob of sexual predators. Most likely both the Egyptian slave girl Hagar and Queen Esther were young teenagers and both were trafficked ultimately for sex. What do we associate with the name “Bathsheba”? A growing consensus among Old Testament scholars is that David raped Bathsheba. Yet we often regard her as a temptress and co-adulterer while minimizing David’s violent abuse of power, focusing instead on his heartfelt repentance. What kind of pattern does that reflect?

These stories and others present significant biblical opportunities to raise awareness of the evils of violence against women and of God’s heart for his daughters. They oblige us to join our voices with the prophets in speaking truth to power and to create safe space for survivors to seek and find help and healing within the church.

#MeToo is a Male Problem Too

One final matter.

Many are now acknowledging that this #MeToo crisis isn’t just a women’s issue and that women alone aren’t going to solve it. Although women can ignite the movement, any lasting change will require the significant participation of our brothers.

Once again, the Bible already makes this point. The story of Ruth and Boaz is the #MeToo story that didn’t happen. Boaz, a powerful imposing figure, faced the kind of situation that had the makings of another abusive #MeToo story.

Ruth—a powerless immigrant who is utterly dependent on Boaz’s good graces for her survival—presents herself to him in the dead of night. If Boaz took advantage of her and this came down to a he said/she said situation, no one in all Bethlehem would take Ruth’s word over his. Yet in a radical turn of events, no #MeToo story happens. Instead, Boaz gives us a dramatic gospel vision of male power and privilege employed sacrificially to empower others and promote their good.

Today’s world is hungry for more men like Boaz. He’s an Old Testament example of the brand of masculinity Jesus himself embodied as he honored and empowered women.

The Bible gives us multiple stories of countercultural men who follow Jesus, and we have growing numbers of men like that today. This is the kind of man Jesus’ gospel intends to produce. If I’m right about Boaz—then the church is positioned to make an enormous difference in this battle. This is the kind of man who, allied with his sisters, can turn the tide in this social crisis.

Image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay

[1]Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009), xvii

[2]“Read Rachael Denhollander’s Full Victim Impact Statement about Larry Nassar,” CNN, updated January 30, 2018, denhollander-full-statement/index.html.

[3]Jen Zamzow, “Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?” in Christianity Today, February 2, 2018,

[4]Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, (New York, Doubleday, 1972), 72.

[5]Rachael Denhollander, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness,” interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018,

[6]Gretchen Carlson, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, (New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc., 2017), 197-198.

[7]Denhollander interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018.

For further reading:

Carolyn Custis James, Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018).
     ”          ”        ”          Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).
     ”          ”        ”         Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

Sandra Glahn, ed., Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women in the Bible,  (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017).

Gretchen Carlson, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, (New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc., 2017)

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009)

Rachael Denhollander, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness,” interview by Morgan Lee, Christianity Today, January 31, 2018,

Jen Zamzow, “Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?” Christianity Today, February 2, 2018,

Join the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual movement of Christians committed to speak out and become part of the solution.

About carolyncustisjames
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5 Responses to Trauma, Resilience, and the Church

  1. Cherish says:

    I have read your books, follow your emails as I receive them. I have great respect for you and your desire to educate and facilitate change where you can. Today, it would have been so significant if you had summoned up 5 male religious leaders who could personally report what their have accomplished to stop the heinous abuse committed by religious, fundamental leaders and their kind.

    One more female voice is not helping us women who are now out of the church and back in psychologists office to heal and heal and heal, lyer by layer. At age 65, Medicare finally covers with no copays. For the last number of years, it has been a $40.00/copay.


    • Cherish, You are so right. “Although women can ignite the movement, any lasting change will require the significant participation of our brothers.”

      We’ll keep making noise, but Christian men need to step up too.

      Unfortunately, many of the men in the church whose names appear are facing accusations.

      I’ve been communicating with one pastor, Rasool Berry, of BridgeChurchNYC. Rasool is a husband and father of a daughter, and he has taken #MeToo up in his church. Here’s a clip from his “Silence is Not Spiritual” sermon last spring.

      His sermon included the testimony of a #MeToo survivor, which is blocked on recordings, But the local congregation heard a woman’s #MeToo story. He preached a powerful sermon on Amnon’s rape of Tamar that took apart all of the elements of abuse. It’s not all talk with Rasool or their church either. They’ve implemented a way for abuse sufferers to get help by sending an email to a designated address w/the name of the person they’d like to talk with in the subject. That’s just for starters.

      Also Boz Tchividjian of is a leading advocate & expert in addressing abuse in the church and giving churches resources to deal with abuse in ways that help and heal, not compound the abuse.

      So there are men in the battle with us!


      • Cherish says:

        Thank you for your heartfelt response. I support, financially, G.R.A.C.E., and receive their emails.
        I have been given lip service, personally, from ministers who claim to be supportive of abuse victims. I have attempted to enlighten young ministers in my family only to have their denominations brainwash them.

        I have spoken personally to Baker Book House staff in Grand Rapids Michigan, asking them to highlight GRACE’s new manual for churches to use as a prototype for child protection program, and was dismissed. I have requested that Baker stock books written by Pastor Jeff Crippen and also, Barbara Roberts , who fight valiantly to educate at ACFJ. Once again, I was dismissed.


        • hopella says:

          I appreciate this blog, especially this past year. I also find your comment relevant. It would be nice to promote , via social media, “hidden heros” ,men and women that take action steps to come alongside people who have been abused, to help in healing and giving positive energy in a meaningful way to their lives and see church leaders follow their example(being the community that’s needed for resilience). I like hearing about St Thomas University’s(St Paul) “Undertold Story Project” on Public News Hour. And I was impressed by the help that this female author received, help that strengthened and supported her in getting to a place of writing and sharing her own story. It’s that kind of hidden/backstage help that seems more like Jesus to me, where the help is nameless(they know who they are) and the voiceless, finding their voice and finding overcoming strength, maybe as authors. I’m sure there are all kinds of others who have been helped who “pay it backward”, that is, reach out to underprivileged with the motive of giving meaningful help to empower others. I’d like to hear stories in our current culture of people who do this(I loved the documentaries about Fred Rogers and RBG this summer). Maybe those who have been in #metoo shoes can see Bible stories with insight that the rest of us could have our understanding of God broadened by and the #metoo person/s could be helped to bring that insight to light in a book/s? I also sense that this type of model has happened for Tara Westover with the writing of her book “Educated”. Instead of seeing more of this(maybe I should look harder) I examine church links that are offered to see whether they have meaningful(teaching) female leadership along with men and if not I don’t share the link or plan on attending that church, even if they do a once a year, or infrequent allowance of a female presence in a leadership role. And I wonder about all the #metoo women whose stories are being used for books. I hope that they all have the economic provision that they need to be thriving in life and its troubles.


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